You can often hear the Persian language spoken in the district of North York Centre, but last Friday evening Iranian culture was concentrated around the Toronto Centre for the Arts. The event was a concert by Mohsen Namjoo, the Iranian music phenomenon who is widely known as Iran’s Bob Dylan. Since he burst onto the Iranian music scene roughly two years ago, his legend hasn’t stopped growing. His first songs generated millions of hits on YouTube, and Namjoo has since played shows all over Europe and North America. With his skyrocketing popularity, he was widely recognized in Iran as a revolutionary musician before he released even a single album.
For many, he’s more than a favourite musician—he’s a symbol of a new movement in traditional Iranian music. He revolutionized the ancient musical form by mixing it with modern folk, blues, and rock influences.
About his innovative sound, Namjoo says, “Its [distinctive quality] is that a new paradigm has been presented in a closed and limited arena like Iranian traditional music, [which] has always been a ‘museum art’ in relation to other forms.”
His popularity in Iran has spread all over the world, making Namjoo such a big name within the Iranian community of Toronto that his March 6 concert sold out a month in advance. He was even followed around the city during his week-long stay by an entourage of fans. Any attempts to hide his place of residence proved ineffective.
But despite his newfound celebrity, the best part of the Namjoo experience is the concert itself. Armed with only a guitar, Namjoo presented a number of his newest works, including one in which he shouts out the name of Muslim prophet Mohammad with a curious sheep imitation: “Maa.” His explanation? “All three main prophets (Jesus, Moses, and Mohammad) were shepherds.” His audacious mash-ups included mixing Johann Sebastian Bach with old Iranian pop singers, and Iranian “new wave” poets with Turkish pastoral hymns.
Namjoo spoke on Sunday afternoon to a packed audience at Hart House’s East Common Room, an event organized by the Iranian Student Association at the University of Toronto. He spoke passionately about his Iranian music projects, and revealed his interest in an unbelievable number of ancient poets.
He’s been celebrated at Toronto’s Arta Gallery in the Distillery District and numerous venues in North York, providing hundreds of concertgoers with the Namjoo experience. The reception has been so warm in Toronto that he admitted he’s thinking of returning to stay for good.
Why does he claim he likes Toronto more than the dozens of other cities he’s visited on tour? “To be honest I couldn’t give you a very rational answer,” says Namjoo. “This is more about senses. We judge everything, and this has been [my judgment] about Toronto. I feel a biological attraction to this city and its people.”
If Namjoo does indeed choose to relocate, those who welcomed him this past week could arguably claim a role in the shaping of Iranian music history.